Like Wharton’s famed debutante, Ivy aims to marry into wealth. Desperate to escape her abusive Chinese immigrant parents whose child-rearing methods are described as “corporal punishment followed by an excess of kindness,” Ivy targets Gideon Speyer, a blond-haired scion of New England blue bloods whose every move signifies to her success and higher breeding.
In an effective early scene, at Gideon’s birthday party in the Speyers’ “handsome glass and stone manor,” Ivy, still in high school, compares the house to her parents’ low-income apartment.
“Her own apartment in Fox Hill, she’d always thought of as a place where she ate and slept, a place that belonged to no one, not her, not her family. But Gideon clearly did not share this viewpoint of his house. All the rooms, the furniture, the such-and-such knickknacks they’d bought on various vacations, were ‘mine’ or ‘ours’; he had ownership over everything. Ownership, Ivy noticed, had a very specific sound.”
Years later, Ivy, a first-grade teacher in Boston, runs into Gideon’s socialite sister, Sylvia, putting her again in the orbit of her romantic target, who has grown to be a successful entrepreneur, “named one of Forbes 30 under 30 two years in a row.” They begin dating, and Gideon invites Ivy to the Speyers’ seaside cottage to meet the family, where she discovers that Roux Roman, her childhood neighbor and first lover, is Sylvia’s boyfriend. Roux, who grew up on Ivy’s side of the tracks, has also become rich, though the source of his wealth is rumored to be tied to organized crime. Blunt and confrontational, Roux is the polar opposite of genteel Gideon. Taught by her famine-hardened grandmother that one had to be opportunistic to survive, Ivy finds Roux’s hardscrabble edginess irresistible. By the end of the vacation, Ivy is engaged to Gideon while having an affair with Roux.
Roux resembles another classic Wharton character — Elmer Moffatt from “The Custom of the Country.” An ambitious, successful man, he disdains the high society and generational wealth that the Speyers represent. When he threatens to reveal their affair to Gideon, Ivy’s entrapped just as Lily Bart was.
While the decline of Lily Bart is one of the great tragedies of American literature, Ivy’s fall feels lurid, like watching a reality-show train wreck spiral from one bad decision to the next. In 1905, when “The House of Mirth” was published, women were unable to vote or choose high-earning careers. In 2020, Ivy could devote her energies to becoming a great teacher or lawyer, which she considers briefly until she bombs the LSAT and realizes she never had any interest in law to begin with. In short, the impoverished Lily Bart needs to marry rich while middle-class Ivy Lin chooses to.
Few and far between are the relationships that might have elevated Ivy beyond her self-destructive narcissism. She could help her brother, who struggles with depression, or seek counsel from her grandmother, but she does neither. When her roommate announces her own engagement to a billionaire, Ivy, hardly listening, hilariously responds that she’s going to make a sandwich.
The publisher bills “White Ivy” as a debut that “turns the immigrant novel on its head,” but it’s unclear how the Lins’s immigration status seeds Ivy’s obsession with the Speyers. Ironically, by the time Ivy is engaged to Gideon, the Lins and the Speyers aren’t even that different: Ivy’s parents have become well-off, too.
While the title seems to allude to Ivy coveting Whiteness, neither she nor any of the characters seem to register the racial or gendered implications of their actions. The closest Ivy comes to doing so is when she thinks: “the most fragile inner parts of a woman were compiled from a million subtle looks and careless statements from others; this was identity. The desire for a different identity had made [her mother] ruin a man, marry another” — a fate that Ivy puts herself in position to repeat.
Even in the absence of more incisive social commentary, “White Ivy” is still a highly entertaining, well-plotted character study about a young woman whose obsession with the shallow signifiers of success gets her in too deep.
Leland Cheuk is the author of “No Good Very Bad Asian,” “The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong” and “Letters From Dinosaurs.”
By Susie Yang
Simon & Schuster. 368 pp. $26